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Interview: Patty Friedmann, Author of Too Jewish

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Patty Friedmann has several literary releases to her name, including six darkly comic literary novels set in New Orleans, as well as the humor book Too Smart to Be Rich, and a young adult novel, Taken Away, as well as her latest literary e-novel titled Too Jewish. 

In addition to novels, Ms. Friedmann has published several reviews, essays, and short stories in Publishers Weekly, Newsweek, Oxford American, Speakeasy, Horn Gallery, Short Story, LA LIT, Brightleaf, New Orleans Review, and The Times-Picayune.  Oxford American listed Secondhand Smoke with 29 titles that included Gone With the Wind, Deliverance, and A Lesson Before Dying as the greatest Underrated Southern Books. 

Patty Friedmann’s novels have been chosen as Discover Great New Writers, Original Voices, and Book Sense 76 selections, in addition, her humor book was syndicated by the New York Times

Ms. Friedmann resides in New Orleans.  Readers can learn more about her and her work at her website, blog and Facebook.

Please tell us a bit about your book, Too Jewish, and what you hope readers take away from reading it.

I’ve always been unabashed about autobiographical elements in my fiction, but Too Jewish set out to tell a deeply personal story, through and through. I came from what I called a “mixed” marriage: my mother was fifth-generation upper-crust New Orleans Jewish, as well assimilated into that city’s crazy-quilt social fabric as was possible; my father was a German Jew who had escaped Germany at the last possible moment, leaving behind a mother who refused to believe what was happening. The novel deviates from truth in a crucial way: the father character does not want to know his mother’s fate. As the young couple struggles against their separate legacies — her parents being perhaps the most cruel of all — the novel downspirals to tragedy and yet buoys the reader with the love they have for each other and for their daughter, a misfit based on what I mold into my imagined self.

I want the reader to see an unusual Holocaust story. Here is a man who escaped one form of prejudice only to learn of prejudice that comes from his own people in the mid-century Deep South. I also want the reader to cut down another layer and consider the central issue of the book. The father deals with “knowing.” Not knowing his mother’s fate is a major choice. It’s a universal decision: when do we probe; when do we protect ourselves?

Who are your favorite characters in the story?

This book is told in three novellas, through Bernie the father, Letty the mother, and Darby the daughter. Since Darby is based on me, it would make sense I’d like her best, but since the book is written flat-out to vindicate my father’s sad life, Bernie is my favorite. When Darby wants to fit in with the other girls, Bernie buys Coke and Oreos, not Pepsi and Hydrox cookies. He’s just like my daddy.

Do you have a favorite line or excerpt from your book?

“When the train came to a halt, it was not rail personnel who came to the compartment but an SS officer. I was accustomed to SS officers. I didn’t flinch. “Raus!” he said. The English meaning of that word is “out,” but in German it means so much more. Germans say it to their children, and their children learn to jump and run. I stood up, bumping into my compartment mates as we pushed to the exit. “Juden?” the officer said. None of us said a word. He asked for our passports. The gentleman handed over their passports, and as he did so, I carefully slipped one of the gold coins out of my left shoe. My socks were damp and made it difficult to reach down, but some power inside me made my fingers nimble and fast, and I palmed the coin. I felt where the other coin was, just in case. The ring was nestled down in the toe of my other shoe. It wasn’t coming out unless I had a gun to my head. That didn’t seem to be what was going to happen. This officer was no older than I was. He was frightened of himself. When he pushed the man and woman out farther, I told him to wait, that surely there was some misunderstanding. He asked for my passport. Instead I slipped him the coin. “They’re my parents,” I said. “I don’t think so,” he said. He turned and walked away, pushing the woman roughly down the passageway.

Their baggage was still in the overhead rack. I considered my other coin. They hadn’t smiled at me. They hadn’t believed me.

“Until I saw Axel in America, I did not allow anyone in any crowd or small space to be an individual to me.”

If your current release were to be turned into a movie, who would you love to see play what characters and why?

I’d raid “A Serious Man” for Sari Lennick for the role of Letty because she has that quality of worldly unworldliness. She could be ethnic and yet assimilated, and she could age through the role. Natalie Portman also seems a logical choice for Letty because she could play a young Jewish girl — New Orleans natives actually have no accent — and then could age with the story.

Christoph Waltz from “Inglourious Basterds” (and also “Water for Elephants”?) could pass for Jewish, and he could master the evolution of the German accent as Bernie learns English. Most importantly, he would come across as vulnerable and sympathetic.

“A Serious Man” also offers Michael Stuhlbarg. He’s a companion piece to Sari Lennick, A Bernie to her Letty.

What are your favorite aspects of writing?

I’m no different from most writers. I like the pregnancy part, the gestation. I write from the opening sentence to the moment when suddenly I find I’m finished — no outline, no summary. I rarely rewrite, except maybe from one day to the next in a few words or phrases. It’s just like reading a book. Forward motion only. So I revel in the unfolding, sometimes chortling with pleasure when a great phrase or scene surprises me. It’s a few months filled with hope.

Your least favorite aspects of writing?

I loathe, absolutely loathe “having written.” No good can come of it. I don’t hear the praise, I don’t do well with editing suggestions. And promotion, especially public appearances, makes me insane. No one except J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon has figured out how to make writing purely a solitary pursuit. But it should be. Writers are raw people. Or at least I am.

Who are some of your favorite authors/books?

I’m shamelessly mired in the past. I could reread and reread J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, John Irving’s The World According to Garp, and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. On a superficial level, each conjures up a place I’ve lived and loved. A little deeper, each has a wise humor. Most importantly, all have a certain ambiguity about how people behave that makes me keep exploring.

What are you reading right now?

Despite my daughter’s brilliant analysis that the reason I was depressed was because of what I was reading, I’m still mired in Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home. It confirms what I think I heard a long time ago, that her freshman year she had the third-floor single in Haven House at Smith, which was my room junior year. A year when I was completely nuts. There’s no connection, except my current mood. My personalized license plate reads “BELLJAR.”

If you could have a dinner party and invite five authors – dead or alive – who would they be and what would you serve them?

I’d invite Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, Jerzy Kozynski, Franz Kafka, and… Shirley Ann Grau. The first four are the greatest wordsmiths of the past century or so, which makes them the greatest wordsmiths of all times, and it doesn’t hurt that their world views are very dark and bemused. I’d invite Shirley because she’s a friend of mine. One night she and I were in our cups with a local theater director named Carl. He said, “What do you look for in a friend?” Shirley told an anecdote that said, in essence, that she looked for someone who could find fun on the spur of the moment. I said I looked for cynicism. Then Carl said he looked for loyalty and devotion. To which Shirley replied, “Oh, you meant something personal.” She’d fit in with that crowd.
I’d serve hard liquor and peanuts.

What is a book that you wish you could say that you had written and why?

I wish I’d written Ulysses. It would mean I was that brilliant.

What is the greatest piece of advice (for writing and/or just living) that you have heard?

I’d say the same thing I told an audience at a high school where I once was a guest speaker. I was asked if I had any advice for aspiring writers.

“Misbehave,” I said.

I heard a version of this idea from a very strange source. When I was a freshman at Smith, I was asked by Mlle. Weed to come in for a conference. The surely virginal 50-something professor said to 17-year-old me, “I’m not telling you to go sit in bars, but unless you do something, you’re never going to have what it takes to understand nineteenth-century French literature.”

To me that meant one thing. Misbehave.

I’ve been off the map ever since.

Probably my longest lasting cut-up was choosing to have a child out of wedlock in 1975 when it was decidedly not a Hollywood thing to do. It’s forgotten now (the act, not the daughter), but at the time I caught a lot of flak and built a pretty good novel around it. I’ve toyed with law and convention and personal safety. Drugs have had little to do with my adventures in squalor, and the result is that I know a lot about human nature, all of which informs my fiction. When the end of my life comes I’m not going to have any regrets.

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